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A bug’s life

Jamie Woodhall, Technical Field Consultant at Initial Washroom Hygiene explains why poor hygiene habits in the workplace lead directly to illness and sick leave

Even though we may not make a habit of it, many of us will commit the odd hygiene faux pas. Some of us may follow the ‘five-second rule’ when we drop food on the floor, while others may let a pet lick our palms, or sneeze into our hands rather than a tissue.

In the modern working world, where pressure is high and time is short, employees may accidentally develop bad hygiene habits, unknowingly facilitating the spread of germs around the office. With employers losing an average of £570 per employee last year due to sick days, it’s crucial businesses take measures to stamp out poor hygiene habits. So in what ways are employees neglecting simple hygiene practices, and how can facilities managers tackle this?

Our research, commissioned in recognition of Global Handwashing Day 2018, revealed that Britons have an alarmingly lax attitude when it comes to hygiene at meal times. Sixty-one per cent of those questioned admitted that they don’t always wash their hands before eating, while 74 per cent don’t wash hands before snacking. This is concerning food for thought, when we consider that according to America’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 80 per cent of all infections are transmitted by hand.

A 2016 survey of 1,000 office workers by Ambius suggests that three in five British employees (61 per cent) eat their lunch at their desk three or more times a week. So if employees do not wash their hands thoroughly before eating, then microbes that have accumulated on common touchpoints around the office such as door handles, light switches, kitchen surfaces, desks and keyboards, may very well end up as an unwanted accompaniment to their meal.

What’s more, with hotdesking becoming increasingly common in offices across the country, employees should be mindful of others’ germs as well as their own. Neglecting hand hygiene before eating in the office carries an added cross-contamination risk in professional environments with shared workstations, as our own research has shown that shared equipment on ‘hot desks’ harbours more bacteria on the whole than a fixed workstation. Employers should therefore encourage workers to take care to wash their hands after touching any common touchpoints, such as a shared keyboard or a mouse.

Initial’s research into hand washing included a swabbing experiment, with a group of British families measuring the level of bacteria present on each family member’s hands before breakfast and dinner. It found higher levels of microbial activity present on participants at breakfast, as opposed to dinner. This can be partially explained by the elevated temperature of our bodies overnight, which causes us to sweat and provides the three things germs need to multiply – warmth, moisture and a source of food. Follow this with a commute to work on public transport, when we will have plenty of opportunity to pick up bacterial and viral particles, then there is an added reason why employees eating breakfast at their desks, especially those opting for ‘finger food’ like toast and fruit, ought to be especially vigilant about hand washing.

The spread of bacteria and viruses via our hands can cause outbreaks of diseases such as flu or norovirus, and given the repercussions in terms of absences and overall productivity, facilities managers should take appropriate action as we head into winter.

It may sound simple, but the main way to fight germs is to encourage good hand washing practices in the workplace. It’s no secret that good hand hygiene is a crucial step in preventing the spread of bacteria, viruses and therefore illnesses. Initial’s swabbing experiment, for example, found that the level of bacteria present on participants’ hands decreased by 83 per cent after they were encouraged to wash their hands prior to meals.

Many of us learn how to wash and dry our hands properly as children, but don’t then carry this knowledge through to our adult years. When the modern worker is so time poor, it can be easy for standards to slip. Helpful reminders and tips on hand washing best practice are a useful way to raise awareness in the office. Hands should be washed thoroughly for 20 to 30 seconds using soap and water, and then dried properly.

Hand sanitisers can form a long-lasting barrier against microbes and provide ongoing protection for several hours after use. If space allows, installing a hand sanitiser dispenser in your washrooms or public areas can encourage a more proactive approach to hand hygiene among workers and visitors.

A regular cleaning regime should be the cornerstone of a hygiene strategy, as it is a crucial step in helping to prevent outbreaks. It’s essential that cleaning is carried out in communal areas to prevent cross-contamination. Proactive cleaning involves the routine disinfection of shared contact points – such as door handles, surface tops, keyboards and mice. Antibacterial wipes should also be placed on workstations, to encourage employees to wipe down equipment.

In conclusion, it’s common for the modern-day worker, increasingly pressed for time, to adopt certain lazy habits. From eating at shared desks to neglecting hand hygiene or even not washing their hands at all before eating, the risks of cross-contamination are heightened, increasing the chances of employees coming into contact with harmful germs. However, at a relatively small cost, facilities managers have the potential to alter poor hygiene habits and instil an environment which will encourage best hygiene practice, helping to improve employee health and workplace productivity.

About Sarah OBeirne

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